The face I deserve in Beijing.

Reminiscing and looking for signs of aging in the mirror it seemed like I had been another person who had lived in another world when I had last set foot in the People’s Republic. Memories of lush forests and the South China Sea seemed distant now, this China was not the same. Vast, remote, toxic and pale were the words that flashed across my mind as the plane circled the winter city, like crossing the surface of a crystallized moon, even the ashen buildings seemed to eradicate into the anemic soil.

As a middle aged woman travelling these alien landscapes I thought back to my life when I had last visited this country. I had been a wide eyed boy then, wholesome, pure, extremely polite and innocent. Back then I had just turned 17 and was travelling the world with my first lover, a man twice my age.

A year before I had met him in another winter landscape while sitting on a wall outside my school. He had said something about the blue and silver of my school uniform matching my eyes and then in the following weeks has proceeded to stalk me in his BMW. It was a time when classmates were beginning to feel the first pangs of romantic love. It was a time when I had felt jaded about the little island I had grown up on. I had longed to leave since I could remember. Thoughts of the beyond had lingered in me. These thoughts reached far back, evident within my consciousness around the time of my first glimpses of life when I had first understood that I was alive. Thoughts of the beyond had consummed me ever since. As I had evesdropped on the excited girls in my class debating which boys to kiss I would sit in silence pondering the man in the car. A progressive, Bohemian sort of school I had been aware a friend was dating the sports teacher and another girl was said to be having a lesbian affair with another teacher so I assumed it quite normal to date someone older. I had always been a good child, winning awards and excelling but as the years progressed I became aware that I felt confined. Little did I know the man in the car would change my life course forever. Eventually he conquered me, convinced me to forget my plans of going to university to study theology, to let my dream of becoming a missionary in Africa go, quite a smooth talker he even convinced me to leave my family, my home, my pets.

Everything had gone so quickly after that. The Lover liked me to look like an angelic boy but made me wear women’s evening dresses with no makeup where he’d take me to the most elegant places as a sort of trophy. It’s very strange how accepting the world is of the unconventional as long as you remain natural and polite within it.

Kissing at dawn in the garden of a castle in Czechoslovakia, lazing on our apartment balcony trying to pick up English on the tinny transistor radio while overlooking the Tagus, evedropping the latest gossip on the former Shah of Iran’s former art dealer, back and forth across the Atlantic, airports, hotels, sitting with relics of the Raj, posh accents, refined restaurants with string quartets, jaded millionaires, palaces, casinos in Macau, tea in Harrods. I had adjusted to this new life really quickly. I was accepted into it.

Once at Heathrow a customs official intercepted and interrogated me asking why I had so many stamps in my passport when I had no study or job and why was I travelling alone at that age. He had accused me of not being the nationality on my passport and demanded to know who I was. He was most probably a predator of some sort driven wild by the realisation that people like me could live so openly while he most probably felt confined and oppressed by the life he was leading. Another time in another airport I had been stripped and body searched by a group of males in an interrogation room. It’s so strange what a beautiful boy in a dress can do to alot of men. My new life was not mainstream. One morning I was in a hotel getting ready to go to Covent Garden when looking out the window realised I was in Manhattan, that is how constantly I travelled. My mother would call and cry, telling me to come home. In my birth country I was legally allowed to leave home at sixteen, to date whomever I wanted. “I’m seventeen mum and I know what i’m doing” I would reply. Infact I was a child and I knew nothing at all.

Then one evening I found myself in the rooftop lounge of the Mandarin Oriental gazing out over the glittering skyscrapers of Hong Kong. While listening to him brag about how I had been a choir boy a year earlier my eyes were drawn towards Kowloon where I knew beyond lay China. I told The Lover that I had wanted to go in that direction and ofcourse he made it happen. China had seemed eerie back then, skinny men puling rickshaws, mobile phones the size of car batteries, live snakes being chopped to pieces in backstreet markets, sad birds in claustrophobic cages and the overwhelming feeling of communism. I thought back to my friends in school, how they would be terrorising our history teacher or back to my friends in church, wondering if they ever did learn to play those instruments, we must have been the wonkiest band on Earth! I would write letters back to them tellng them how it felt in the exotic east, how it felt to be in love. In a way it was me writing back letters to a childhood which I was becoming aware had been snatched from me so unexpectantly. It was my moment to say goodbye to the boy I had been. My friends would write back in admiration. It seemed the quiet, religious boy they remembered had been skyrocketed to a place amongst the stars and in a way I felt that way too.

Everything had changed since then. That boy had ceased to exist long ago. My name, my nationality, my voice, my body through plastic surgery, it had all changed, the world had changed too. Would my school friends even recognize me now? Would they remember me at all? The woman who now looked into the mirror in this progressive, faster China was distorted. Staring into the mirror I thought about mian xiang, the Chinese art of face reading, how it shows that everyone eventually gets the face they deserve. I wondered if my face had matched my soul, if the trials of my life had been etched onto it, if memories of The Lover lay evident within a crease on my face, if future predictions were there to be unlocked.

Me in 2017 with the face the Chinese say I “deserve”

Wakeup calls were always the same in this new China. Riot police would bark through loud speakers around 6am and then the clearances would begin. Not only had my former self ceased to exist but Old China would cease to exist too  … by any means possible. Boots against concrete, the sound of crashing walls and then the pleading, the crying in languages I could only assume must have been Chinese. I wondered if we would be next. Even though my hotel was beautiful and the staff didn’t seem to bat an eyelid to the asbest cloud meandering through the alley I still wondered if I would be homeless. I did notice the ramschakle buildings surrounding us seemed a bit haphazard while my hotel was well planned and firm. The hotel gave me a card to show to the riot police who had blocked off our alley so that I could come and go. I had been charmed by the idea of staying in a hutong, a traditional low-rise section of the city. These old areas are snapshots of how Peking used to be. Little did I know this was the part of the city that was being razed to make way for the 21st Century.

The say everything in America is bigger but in China it is huge. Train stations felt like airports and the queues at security check points were on a daunting scale. These checkpoints were everywhere. One frozen morning while shuffling in a queue towards a checkpoint on the outskirts of the Forbidden City I glared at one of those regimented soldiers. She was grabbing a poorly dressed man by the scruff of the neck and that man, all he could seem to do was smile politely. I thought back to those predatory officials who had interrogated me as a boy when I had done nothing wrong and felt a surge of compassion towards the poor man who was being abused. My most powerful death ray seemed to go right through the soldier and she loosened her clutch and lowered her eyes in shame, she knew she was wrong. For a moment, that moment, she almost seemed to be human again.

Mostly central Beijing is on a grid. The wide systematic boulevards seemed to stamp their muddy footprints across the downtrodden soul of the city. Lined by dank Socialist highrise or secretive office blocks, speeding traffic and choking fumes I couldn’t work out where the appeal lay within this futuristic city planning or the sanity of the city planners themselves. Once while sitting beside a memorial to Lenin and Marx I saw a man on a bicycle get run over by a Mercedes. The driver jumped out, stuffed some money into the man’s hand then drove off again. The modern city felt warlike. While walking I managed to cover great swathes of the city and preferred to stick to the lowrise hutongs, using my phone to map through the labyrinth of alleyways. The last traces of a human soul could still be found in those alleyways. I would delight in getting lost feeling like a ghost observing the Chinese life but in no way part of it. I knew no westerner could ever be fully accepted into China and I was at peace with that. The older sections felt recognizable, familiar. It was there in the low city that I loved Beijing most, red lanterns swaying in the moonlight, the sound of opera from the radio, insects being sold as snacks, old ladies in furs walking Pekinese (everyone seemed to have a Pekinese), laughter, the sweet delicious smell of bread, pockets of silence. I imagined little had changed in the genetic makeup of Beijing there. It had a magical aura that the rest of the city didn’t have. It had life.

I had decided to visit the Forbidden City. What is strange about Beijing is that if you want to visit Tian’anmen Square (which is open space)  you have to go through security controls. I waited for over an hour in one, shuffling with the Chinese through the nippy frost. Now and then a baby would unceremoniously be placed into my arms for a photo, families lined up around me, they seemed to like my blonde hair and blue eyes. Once while standing a family had even positioned themselves behind me for a family portrait only I had my back to the lens which I thought odd.

Still China was alien. These interactions were minimal as if they didn’t see me at all,  they didn’t know me. I was just another Nordic hologram, alien to their eyes that had to be captured on camera holding their offspring. Maybe it was seen to bring luck, maybe I would be framed and put on the wall of a shack in the most obscure parts of the country. China is like Japan. People are polite but still you feel no part of their society. I thought back to Iran, Romania, Peru, India, the places where I had amazing interactions with their citizens. I longed for a deeper human connection. Whenever I would see caucasians in Beijing my heart would leap and i’d long to talk to them. In the security line I noticed a caucasian man smiling at me. He seemed just as baffled as I was as to why they were wanting to photograph me. As the queue shuffled forward it took about ten minutes before we manage to get close enough to talk. He was a businessman from Milan, in China checking out a factory on the outskirts of the capital. He joked and asked why they didn’t ask him for a photo. We were very formal with each other and after entering the Forbidden City politely decided that we would spend the day together. We walked across the Forbidden City, a place I had imagined white, under blankets of ice, snowflakes falling across it’s red roofs. There was no snow, the sky was severe clear, a deep blue contrasting and enhancing the Ming architecture even more so. We talked about our lives while marvelling at the names of the buildings, the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity, the Palace of Earthly Tranquility, each one more bizarre than the other. Afterwards from a pavilion on the summit of Prospect Hill we overlooked the grounds of the Forbidden City below. While I explained the hill was man-made, built from the land left over from the construction of the moat surrounding the city I was aware that the Italian seemed almost enchanted with me.

Afterwards we made our way south across Tian’anmen towards the Temple of Heaven. Along with the Taj Mahal the Temple of Heaven was one of the first buildings I had ever noticed. My mum had photos of them on our kitchen wall. I had been fascinated with her old photos of exotic islands, crumbling palaces, old mosques. I wondered if the Italian businesman, Ezio, was destined to be with me since that building was so ingrained into my psyche. We had met in a crowd and later that day said goodbye in a crowd, this time in Dongsi Station during rush hour. We promised to meet in Amsterdam and a few months later we did. While viewing a full moon which was framed so perfectly behind the townhouses on a curve of the Herengracht we remarked how Amsterdam was so different, so far more beautiful than Beijing could ever be.

I have mixed feelings about Beijing. I had heard that the Communist Annual Conference was happening on Tian’anmen Square so maybe that was why security had been tightened. Maybe that was why there were many security controls. I had heard because of the conference industry had been put on hold to clear the skies and true, I had never saw the infamous toxic fog. Maybe with Communism the people still saw westerners in some ways as an enemy and that is why interaction were to a minimum.

The Chinese are so far off from my world, to me as pale and remote as the landscapes they inhabit. As the plane took off I left memories of The Lover and China behind. I was heading towards the Middle East unbeknown to me towards the city of my dreams, towards the city of my future, Cairo.


The woman on Bloubergstrand.

Whenever I meet people who, like me, have lived in both New York and Los Angeles I always ask them which city they prefer. The answer seems to tell me so much about the personality of the person i’m talking too.

I had heard so much about Cape Town for many years, it’s stunning location, Table Mountain, the beaches, the penguins, the white sand and oceans. Cape Town seemed to have everything. So, why, as I walked across the City Centre did my heart seem to sink? I guess for me it was a matter of energy, chemistry and Cape Town didn’t have any of them.

I kept thinking back to Johannesburg, how people had warned me never to walk in downtown alone and how in the end I had gone against their advice and in doing so discovered Johannesburg as exciting, gritty, raw, edgy in the same way Manhattan can be. Quite simply Johannesburg had been fabulous. After a few hours walking around Cape Town I felt the city and it’s lack of energy stifling, too European, too claustrophobic, too neat and pretty. This is a city I decided where people exist but don’t live. I took one look at the Waterfront, the new development around the harbour and promised myself never to walk there again. After my seperation my soul felt vulnerable, I didn’t need pointless materialism and glass and chrome buildings to crush it further.

As for landscapes, Cape Town really does have them in abundance, probably one of the most beautifully located cities in the world matching Rio de Janeiro for sure. As I stood on Table Mountain and looked down on Cape Town I realised it could never be as visually stunning as say Hong Kong from Victoria Peak. I had planned to stay in Cape Town for a week and after the first day realised it was going to be a struggle to get through it. I wondered if it was me and if I may be just another jaded traveller.

Days were spent visiting various beaches all the while searching for penguins and seals. One day I had made my way down to Cape Point by helicopter, the coastline marvellous. Another place I truly loved was Kirstenbosch, the cities Botanical Garden nestled into the side of Table Mountain. Kirstenbosch was for me the most beautiful Botanical Garden I have ever walked through and a real pleasure to explore.

I did manage to find real meaning in Cape Town though, life changing meaning. It happened one morning as I walked along Bloubergstrand, a beach on the Atlantic with sweeping views towards Table Mountain. It was here on this beach that my life took on a new course.

Flying down the coast of Africa.

Since May 2015 you could say I had, I guess, existed mentally in some sort of parrallel life to my own. Not quite a part of my own self. I was still me ofcourse, still Grace, but I was living in denial, denial that my relationship was over, denial that I had lost the love of my life. It was on Bloubergstrand that morning that this denial stage of my lost relationship ended.

It had something to do with the ocean, the feeling of sand between my toes, the noise of sea gulls, the crashing sound of breakers hitting rocks, the Atlantic itself with it’s hints of endless possibility, the laughter of children and in the distance Table Mountain looming under a perfect blue sky. It dawned on me that the life I was living, that part of me that wasn’t in denial, was living a pretty darn incredible life, and that in that moment I was looking at Table Mountain, the iconic horizon recognised the world over.  A few months earlier I had lunch somewhere across that ocean on Corcovado, and before that had hitchhiked further out alone across the High Andes. The day before on a whim I had chartered my own helicopter to take me to where a continent ended and two oceans met. I reminded myself that I loved human beings in all their forms and they seemed to love me too, that life was incredible, that our planet was beautiful.

I took a photo of Table Mountain that morning seen from Bloubergstrand.  When I got home I framed it. It hangs on the wall of my kitchen to remind me that life goes on, to remind me that I’m lucky to live the life I lead, that in ways our planet with it’s most famous vistas have been handed to me on a silver platter. It was in South Africa that I found the ability to let the past go, to reach a turning point in my life.

That very moment on Bloubergstrand!

I had decided on that morning that, while I was incapable of falling in love again, at least for right now anyway,I would try to go on dates again and to be open to the idea of having a relationship, atleast in theory. It had been 16 months since my relationship had ended, girlfriends had reminded me that I was good looking, they had even set up blind dates in the hope I would move on with my life. It’s not you I had confessed, it’s me. In the haze of denial I had been aware that men had asked me on dates but I had been closed, they had just been holograms and nothing more.

Now I would live, things would be very different from now on. I would completely transform my appearance, I would wear dresses and dye my hair blond, I would wear the strongest red lipstick I could find, I would never wear denim again. As a broken human I promised myself that I would try to be attractive again. I promised myself that on Bloubergstrand that day, a morning when I had hardly looked in the mirror getting ready, that my hair had uncaringly been put into a pony tail, a morning when I had wore jeans and sneakers. The woman I was on Bloubergstrand would never be allowed to exist again, she would fade forever. I promised myself that.

Two weeks ago as I walked through the main train station in Cairo I felt like what seemed the eyes of a thousand men on me. I faintly remembered that woman on Bloubergstrand in her jeans and sneakers, dressed in her sad smile, how it seemed she had lived in another decade while South Africa had only been nine months ago. In the meantime I had truly transformed myself, I can’t remember exactly where or when I had took on my new form only that the woman I’am now is not the same person. As the young Egyptian taxi driver struggled to keep his eyes on the road, telling me over and over how amazing I look and asking for my WhatsApp I realised that I do seem to have something appealing right now. They will never know the broken woman I had been, how the pain I had felt in 2015 and 2016 had been totally off the scale of what I was ever capable to processing. They just see me at face value and I like to think that is where my secret lies, in my eyes, a certain smoldering pain and rebirth, a contradiction. I know what it means to live now.

They say you can never live, to truly understand what life means until you experience pain or heartbreak. I believe this to be true. If you ever find yourself going through a tough patch then do not try and rush your emotions or sweep them away but embrace them and the life lesson they carry. It may take a day, a week, years but your life will go on, you will become strong again.



Life’s lessons in Johannesburg.



As the final call was being made for the flight to South Africa I still had to show my boarding pass. I was in tears talking to my friend Sonja on the phone who was demanding that I must, no matter what, get on that flight, that I must get away from Amsterdam and everything familiar for a while and most important I must break away from the emotions that had been consuming me for the past months.

My parents had died when I had been 22, and as tough as that had been, this pain was different. Ever efficient, I like everything to run like clockwork, with precision like a Swiss watch that’s why love has the power to destroy me as it has no form, no definition, no rules. It’s formless intensity was so overwhelming in a way I felt I was being crushed from the inside. I realised the summer of 2016 had been the toughest time of my life, devestated could describe my feelings, only magnify that word tenfold.

A few weeks earlier I had ended up in hospital suffering from anorexia, a side effect from the turmoil I was going through. I had lost a third of my body weight, convulsing alot I had been unable to eat. How could love or the demise of it affect me in such a way? Somehow I had managed to keep going to work but it had been hard, every single thing I had done that summer seemed so unbelievably hard. I took Sonja’s advice and stepped on the plane and before I knew it we were approaching the coast of Africa.


Johannesburg, the city of what could have been

Being on long haul flights are a time when I normally reflect on my life, my actions. I had thought about my trip to Romania, how I had loved it there and of Peru and the beauty of the Andes. I realised that on those trips and the months between I had just existed but was not living. The problem was that my emotions and the fact I was unable to let them go, that these emotions were preventing me from loving life. I needed to be my old self again, the person who is endlessly sweet, so polite that your grandparents would adore me, who genuinely likes everyone when meeting them.

I know the exact moment when my life got better and that the summer of 2016 began to fade into a distant memory. I had found a movie on the in-flight entertainment system called The Danish Girl, a story about Lili Elbe, one of the first women who had had gender reassignment surgery. This movie was in a way groundbreaking for me. In the movie there were scenes where she tries on her first dress, learns to walk and move and in a way I was reminded of my own transition many years before when I too had taken the exact same steps to become a woman physically. I had forgotten about those years, the energy I had put into it. In a way I had forgotten I had been anything other than female physically. It dawned on me that I should be immensely proud of my life now, that I was sucessful, most of all it dawned on me that I should not let such a thing as love destroy me. Self worth.


a photo of me November 2016, the woman I became

Although the drive into Johannesburg was a bit scary and downtown felt sinister at night I still knew I was going to like this city. Johannesburg was the city of what-could-have-been as in my early twenties I had been offered a job in South Africa but in the end had rejected it. Now I was seeing Jo’burg for the first time and wondered if I too, in this city, would have suffered during a painful seperation or if this city would have been kinder to me than what Amsterdam had been.

Reef Hotel

watching the sunset from the hotel lounge

The high point of Johannesburg had been the sunsets, sitting in the rooftop lounge of my hotel watching the red skies reflect in the skyscrapers. Although some men had tried to strike up conversations with me I had, as always, declined, opting to watch the birds fly in formation across downtown, just to stare out towards the city. In a way to be honest that was all I was capable of at that moment in my life.

Afternoons I would walk around downtown. The reception of my hotel had  pleaded with me to go everywhere by car and that the streets were dangerous. Now when you say that to me I will make a point of walking everywhere. Johannesburg dangerous? Actually along with the Lili Elbe movie, the sunsets from the hotel it was the people of Johannesburg who made something inside me click. Their energy, friendliness, their vulnerability gave me the first ideas of trying to live again, not to exist anymore, but to live, really live!

So that was that, the first moments of my true, pure rebirth. The Lili Elbe movie giving me feelings of self worth, of being a true survivor, of being unique and through everything to become the person I’am inside. The sunsets reminding me of the endless beauty of our planet and that there is alot more to our world than just emotion. Lastly the people of Johannesburg with their unmeasurable energy and drive reminding me to keep going, to never give up, to grab life by the horns and most of all….to survive.


Searching for Dora at Central do Brasil.


Familiar but not quite, that is how I would describe Brazil. I came to this conclusion after watching the chocolate seller, a woman in her forties with the type of face that you’d imagine had seen it all but through everything still had enough determination to flash a smile with tones of gentleness. Watching her walk along Praia do Flamengo selling her homemade chocolates wrapped in pretty ribbons the scene seemed familiar but it was the realisation that my imagination along with Loulou’s were on overdrive that made us conclude that Brazil has a slight touch of the exotic to make it different enough to make us feel like outsiders looking in.


Sugarloaf Mountain

Flamengo from Sugarloaf

Top: Sugarloaf at sunset from Flamengo Beach.

Middle: Cablecar up to the summit.

Bottom: Praia do Flamengo from Sugarloaf.

Somewhere along our journey we had decided to write a book, a sort of haphazard love letter to Brazil, the country which never ceased to offer us an abundance of characters. The chocolate seller, she had now turned into a bitter serial killer, once spurned by a foreign lover her chocolates and pretty ribbons now concealed a measure of arsenic to those who reminded her of those days when love had brought her near to heaven. Then there was the beautiful girl sitting on her balcony in an expensive condo in Copacabana. To us she had married a rich man who had took her away from poverty and now a kept woman in a gilded cage she would sit there bored everyday staring towards the ramshackle huts of the favela and longing for her childhood she would reminisce of those days that had felt worth living. Then there was the beautiful boy with green eyes wearing the sky blue t-shirt riding Bus 174 through Botafogo.  He lived in the favela where he would spend his days building a chapel made of cardboard and wood. He would only come down to the asphalt city to search for discarded newspapers and posters, hoping to find images of Jesus in them which would become the great Michelangelo artwork of his sanctuary. Yes, at first sight Brazil seemed familiar but it is when you realise that you are an outsider looking in that you understand this is not some lost European country but rather somewhere with it’s own unique identity.

Warsaw on Sea

Warsaw-on-Sea. The Centro district Rio de Janeiro.


While I know for sure that Brazilians are the kindest people I have ever met I couldn’t quite make up my mind about the Cidade Maravilhosa and it’s reputations of beauty. Most of the architecture of downtown Rio is modern bordering on brutalist and if it wasn’t for the cities location nestled between Sugarloaf, Corcovado and Tijuca National Park I could have quite easily christened it Warsaw-on-Sea. Rio de Janeiro is definitely not my kind of city. Show me the sardines vying for space on a packed beach and I will run a mile. The same goes for certain cities with their myths of glamour and the people attracted to it, who, too busy making selfies in the latest place to be seen hardly notice the beggars they are stepping over.


Ipanema late afternoon

Of all the beaches in Rio there was only one I actually enjoyed and that was the one nicknamed The Poor Man’s Beach, Flamengo. If you just want to sit somewhere quiet sipping on a cocktail unpretentiously wrapped in polystyrene without the endless hawkers and crowds then head for Flamengo around sunset and marvel at the great hulk of Sugarloaf Mountain. Here it’s façade seems gigantic and as the slipping sun will make it’s rockface turn quite volcanic you will marvel at the children and their confidence as they swim in the breakers which seem to my eyes more used to the North Sea quite terrifying. The same cannot be said for posh Ipanema or crowded Copacabana and while the walk along Ipanema and Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica was truly iconic I longed for the back streets of Old Delhi with their chaos and grime where life seems far more edgier.

Guanabara Bay

The famous view from Corcovado.

One morning Loulou and I followed the tourist trail up to the summit of Corcovado to view Christ the Redeemer. While the statue is beautiful but much smaller than I had imagined the views were astounding. I couldn’t help but giggle to myself while watching the tourists all crammed on the balcony below, which from that angle made them look like one big angry cockroach their waving selfie sticks like the insect’s antennae reaching out trying to catch something, for the tourists just a memory. Sugarloaf was no different. Unhappy queues of tourists crammed into cable cars for the ride up to the summit and while the views again were amazing it was the crowds that made me want to flee. I was surprised though that on top of Sugarloaf there is small forest where if you search long enough you can just about escape from the crowds although I suspect the marmosets have become jaded or wise and fled the summit long ago.

Rio from above

Jardim Botanico

The Avenue of Palms in the Jardim Botânico. When you tell me these Botanical Gardens are amongst the world’s finest I was expecting far more!

Rio Jardim Botanico

Walking in “the armpit” … this neighbourhood is nicknamed so because it’s located under Christ’s right armpit.

Jardim Botanico

Parque Lage

There was only one moment in Rio and actually the rest of Brazil that had for me eclipsed all others and that was in the unlikely location of Rio’s main train station called Central do Brasil. It must have been sometime last winter when cycling home from work in a particulary nasty downpour that I had got home looking and feeling like a drowned rat, the prospect of the upcoming darkened months seemed to have weighed heavier on my shoulders that day. Trying to cheer myself up while dancing to Bossa Nova music on Youtube I had stumbled upon a Brazilian movie called Central do Brasil.Corcovado from Parque Lage

Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer from Parque Lage.

Artwork Rio I

Artwork in the Escola de Artes Visuais do Parque Lage.

Artwork Rio II

Artwork Rio III

Central do Brasil tells the story of a boy searching for his father who becomes friends with a letter writer who sits in the main hall of the cities train station. This film captures Brazil and it’s emotions so beautifully that I couldn’t help but watch it a number of times and it was this film that made me decide to go to Brazil. One afternoon after walking what seemed like all over the city I would say fate brought me towards the train station where approaching it’s main hall I had felt a rush of excitement, the only time I had felt that in Brazil.

Central do Brasil

The building of dreams…Central do Brasil!

This moment is when I could say I loved Brazil the most standing at a coffee counter in Central do Brasil’s main hall wearing my beat up strawhat and dusty clothes where I sipped on an intense cafezinho and gazed across the crowds searching for Dora, the letter writer and Josue, the lost boy. In doing so I saw all of Brazil unfold before my eyes. People with unfamilar provincial features were flowing into the city carrying their lives in one suitcase, their sparkling eyes crammed full of dreams, while others, the downbroken, were going back home dejected by the Marvelous City and all that it had offered them. In between it all smartly dressed business workers could have been flowing out towards the suburbs after a day’s work lost in their thoughts and drama of big city life while beggars milled around in search of a few reais. The only thing that seemed permanent was the building itself with it’s huge images lining the main wall. These were of places in Brazil like Brasilia and São Paulo now faded and covered in dirt showcasing the country in another time when Brazil had seemed more optimistic. In that moment I understood the vastness of Brazil, of the world, and us, just one in billions with our hopes and dreams we are all in someway searching for the Cidade Maravilhosa.

Subscribe to my blog! Next up: Life’s Lessons in Johannesburg.


The White Dove of Ouro Preto.

Ouro Preto

Sometimes life throws something straight at you and I experienced this the first time I ever saw a photo of Ouro Preto. In the picture was a town nestled in hills but my eye was instantly drawn towards the quite unremarkable moss-covered church on a hill where I knew I was going to see some sort of sign. Later I found out this church was called São Francisco de Paula and that my premonition of a sign had been correct all along.

Set along the Royal Road leading from Rio up into the hills to the town of Diamantina, Ouro Preto was the old capital of the state of Minas Gerais and is considered by some to be the finest, most picture-perfect town in all of Brazil. In 1750 more people were living in Ouro Preto than New York and five times that of the population of Rio de Janeiro. At first named Vila Rica (Rich Town) and for long the wealthiest town in the Americas the name had later been changed to Ouro Preto meaning Black Gold. The town was also the location of the Inconfidência Mineira, the first uprising for independence in Brazil. It was led by an inhabitant of Ouro Preto, a dentist named Joaquim José da Silva Xavier better known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). The Portuguese crushed the uprising and Tiradentes was dismembered his limbs scattered along the Royal Road to terrorize the populace while his head was said to have been exhibited on the main square where a stone pillar marks the spot today.

Praça Tiradentes

Praça Tiradentes and the stone pillar with a statue of Tiradentes on top

Leaving the bus station we decided to walk into town as the quotes the taxi drivers where throwing at us were outrageous considering our hotel was only a fifteen minute walk away. We strolled along a cracked sidewalk which was no easy feat considering my suitcase was a spinner and past a custard-coloured church. Turning the corner of the church towards it’s façade I realised it had been built on a ridge overlooking the town which was suddenly revealed before us like a surreal oil painting by Alberto da Veiga Guignard. I couldn’t help but notice that the town was sloping away from us and built on steep hills giving the impression of a perilous sea of orange rooftops and rainbow-coloured window frames, between the waves loomed the huge steeples of Baroque churches acting as lighthouses for mankind before the homes surged towards the horizon and into the foothills of Itacolomi State Park. They were right, with it’s cobbled lanes, iron lanterns and red shutters Ouro Preto was indeed beautiful and inhaling the smell of a million eucalyptus trees I realised I could quite happily visit there every year.

Pousa do Chixo Rei

Pousa do Chico Rei just after dawn

Chico Rei detail

drawing on the wall of Chico Rei

Famous guests

Pousa do Chico Rei is full of framed drawings and letters, here is Guignard

Marvelling at the wrought iron balconies and artsy shops selling regional stones like topaz and diamonds we walked past the town’s main square, Praça Tiradentes, and turning right at the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo made our way along Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira to the Pousa do Chico Rei where we would be staying. I couldn’t remember why I had decided to stay there but vaguely knew that it would be something special. After walking into the reception area I realised I was in some sort of shrine, snapshots of a life seemed to line it’s walls with poems and love letters, of faded photos and silly doodles framed in glass. Reading the name Lilli over and over again I realised where I was, the former home of Lilli Correia de Araújo, the Danish innkeeper who had lived here and had hosted a who’s who of the twentieth century. I adored everything about this 18th century building, the massive, creaking bedroom doors with even bigger gaol-like iron keys, antique beds that could have been from the palace in Sintra, squeaky floorboards smoothed from footsteps of long ago, the incredible views across town from it’s rambling garden and most of all the fact that it seemed as if Loulou and I were the only traveler’s who knew of it’s existence. On every trip it is a small pastime of mine to try to find a connection to the journey I had taken previously and spotting a painting of Saint Michael by the Cusco School on the wall of the breakfast area I felt a nod of recognition from Peru and saw it as a good sign.

The guesthouse is now run by Lilli’s grandson Ricardo and as he led us upstairs, at times tripping over a small, black, grey-moustashed mongrel, he told us we were the only guests and we would be staying in the best room of the house, the Pablo Neruda Suite named after the Chilean poet-diplomat who had stayed there. I was fascinated reading the names of former guests like Kissinger and Burle Max and knew I was going to sleep in a place surrounded by the ghosts of people I admire. I must say I have the best memories staying there, talking with Loulou for hours on end, running across squeaking floorboards at all hours of the night, raiding the kitchen for snacks and most of all the feeling we were free to explore the whole building. It really was like staying with your long lost uncle who was never around. I wondered too about the conversations that had been debated here, Marxism and Hedonism when Sartre and de Beauvoir had slept here, or of Guignard and his ideas of dreamy landscapes, of the laughter and clinking of wine glasses of all those years ago. Talking with Loulou about our own varied, alternative lives I wondered if the guests of past would have welcomed us too. At night as I lay on the bed clutching my stomach still in the last throws of food poisoning I couldn’t help but think of our room’s namesake, Pablo Neruda, and the irony of it all when he, in the last hours of his life, had too, clutched his stomach and pleaded for help from his wife convinced that he had been poisoned by members of the Pinochet regime.

Most of all I cherished the moments around dawn when I would try to hush the creaking doors and tiptoe across the living room floor and sit on the balcony where I could marvel at the church right outside. This was the spot where Elizabeth Bishop had wrote her poem Under the Window: Ouro Preto. As I thought of her words “…here am I for whom you have been waiting…” I would stare towards the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo which at that time would be bathed in the softest kaleidoscope of purples and pinks sliding across it’s façade. The fat-cheeked cherubs sculpted by Aleijadinho seemed to dance in this light, hovering above the doorway it was as if they were dancing for me, a final show from Christianity before I turned my back on it forever.

Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Nossa Senhora do Carmo. This is the view from the balcony of Pousa do Chico Rei at dawn

Ouro Preto Sunrise

the first light of a new day on Rua Brigadeiro Musqueira

Places with hills are always a shock for me at first as I spend most of my time in The Netherlands but being in Ouro Preto and fighting both food poisoning, a viral infection and along with that the hot temperatures after coming out of a European winter, walking in the town was particulary tough but I managed to soldier along. I believe it was the kindness of the inhabitants of the town and the amazing companionship of Loulou that helped with my recovery.

Ouro Preto is famous for it’s churches, the soapstone market and it’s souvenirs of white doves so days were spent wandering it’s lanes buying presents made of soapstone and visiting the many churches, my favorite being the Igreja Santa Efigênia. Named after an Ethiopian saint this church didn’t have the wealth of it’s more famous neighbours like the Igreja Nossa Senhora do Pilar with it’s 400kg of gold but it was it’s history that beamed it into the stars for me.  Santa Efigênia had been funded by the slaves who had been shipped over from Africa. It is said the churches construction had been funded by the gold dust collected in the fountain where the slaves had washed their hair after being forced to work in the mines. It was amazing to look inside this church and see traces of Africa in it’s artwork although such a pity it’s not allowed to take photos.

Ouro Preto Church

Morning in Ouro Prero

Minas Gerais

Dawn Ouro Preto

Ouro Preto flora

Ouro Preto Bridge

find the puppy!

Pousa do Chico Rei

Pousa do Chico Rei from Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo

Ouro Preto Rays

man catching the first sunlight on Praça Tiradentes

As the days passed and our list of churches to visit were ticked off there still loomed the moss-covered church of São Francisco de Paula which was ever-present from our room window. As this was the church I had saw in that first photo I told Loulou that I needed to go there before we left the town although I didn’t know why and that I knew I would see something. It all sounded a bit crazy but having faith she walked with me over to the Tourist Information Office where we hired a driver who told us there were nicer churches than that one but still I was adamant that we must go there. Driving into the grounds of the church I was shocked. It was the only church in the town, and infact the rest of what I had saw in Brazil, that seemed unkept. Covered in grafitti and locked up with smashed windows I realised it was in the type of place where you have to watch out that you don’t step on used syringes. My heart sank thinking I could never see anything remarkable in such a place as that and feeling defeated we asked the driver just to drive us around and take us to places where he thought could be interesting.

It wasn’t until later when we were on the other side of the town that I noticed across the valley stood the abandoned church and right above it was a cloud in the shape of a white dove with outstretched wings. I knew instantly that this was the sign I was seeking although I didn’t know what it all meant. I later asked a shopkeeper why they sell so many trinkets of white doves and she told me in Brazil they place them above their doorways to protect households and that in Christianity it symbolizes the Holy Spirit. All through my journeys into Romania, Peru and now Brazil I had visited many churches and had now become aware that all along I had been saying in some way a farewell to Christianity, a religion that I had loved as a child. It was amazing for me to see this sign, the White Dove as a cloud, confirming that there is something higher that we don’t understand. The White Dove, a symbol of peace the world over, it was in many ways closure for me and a confirmation that I must persevere on my journey towards belief but in a different form.

White Dove Ouro Preto

the cloud that changed it all, on the left hovering above the Igreja São Francisco de Paula

It’s strange why sometimes we have to travel half way across the world just to find what we always had at home and in Brazil I realised this . . . I had belief. The White Dove of Ouro Preto was the sign I needed in my life, a final blessing from Christianity and a form of guidance for me to embrace a new religion, one that I had been aware of as a four year old child and one that I had been aware of even before that of Christianity.

Subscribe to my blog! Next up: Searching for Dora at Central do Brasil.


Following Aleijadinho’s footsteps to Mariana.

Minas Gerais Landscape

As we travelled north west from Rio de Janeiro into one of Brazil’s largest states Minas Gerais I enjoyed the idea of the unknown. It was a part of my trip that I had not researched and all I had to go on was a photo of a beautiful colonial town that had reminded me of a favorite place of mine in Portugal, Coimbra, and more tragically of the Bento Rodrigues disaster which had been all over the news only a few months earlier.

As the gritty industrial suburbs of Rio faded into farmland shadowy mountain ridges of cool blue set against rolling hills and forests of emerald green seemed to go on forever. As beautiful as it was I couldn’t help but think of it’s rivers, poisoned by the toxic sludge from Bento Rodrigues which was slicing through the landscapes on it’s way to the Atlantic. I had expected a displaced people and areas cordoned off but realised Minas Gerais was so vast that it was impossible to notice anything out of the ordinary. There were no sandbags or army jeeps or television helicopters with cameramen, just sleepy towns where life seemed to go on as usual.




I was following the footsteps and legend of Aleijadinho. A man who some say had never existed while others say was the child of an African slave, the father being a famous Portuguese mason. Aleijadinho was said to have decorated some of the regions most beautiful churches and the legend goes that as his life progressed he had lost his limbs to leprosy. This didn’t stop him from his passion and he would ask people to bind what was left of his limbs with chisels and hammers and then be hoistered up to continue his work which seems looking back now to have been executed at a frenetic pace. I was intrigued by the story of Aleijadinho and knowing I would never uncover the truth at least I would have his artwork to admire.


Sleepy Mariana

Mariana is the oldest of the colonial towns in Minas Gerais, named after Dona Maria Ana of Austria, the wife of Dom João V. Gold had been discovered in this region which gave the townsfolk enough money to build elaborate homes and churches and as the Portuguese style was much in fashion at the time the streets began to look no different than towns thousands of kilometres away. It was said that in the rush to discover gold the towns grew so fast that there had been at one time a shortage of food where people had starved to death clutching gold nuggets in their hands.

Church in Mariana

Nossa Senhora do Carmo Church

Square Mariana

a sleepy square

Mariana steeples

Mariana Brazil

Mariana Minas Gerais

church towers of São Francisco Church

I would have liked to stay in Mariana longer and while away the days on it’s town squares and to have explored more of it’s churches but I was aware of Brazil, it’s exotic vastness, and how I would need to move on, to explore this great land in more detail. The great jewel of Minas Gerais was calling me, Ouro Preto, a town not far from Mariana and said by some to be the most beautiful in Brazil.

Subscribe to my blog! Next up: The White Dove of Ouro Preto.


Into the shadows of Corcovado.

Rio de Janeiro

Flying down to Rio. As my digestive tract exploded from both ends somewhere off the coast of Madeira I realised the glamour of air travel was truly over. Back in the thirties “flying down to Rio” to stay at the Copacabana Palace Hotel was quite the thing when the city had been for the rich and famous the voyage du jour. Now I found myself on a cramped plane suffering from severe food poisoning due to the negligence of the airline itself. I had been served food with a broken seal and believing the lame excuse from the stewardess – she is the person I have to follow instructions from in a disaster – I ate it. An hour later when it became obvious I was ill the crew closed ranks and gave three different reasons why the seal had been broken. I have a witness but being the better person I have decided to let it rest. I’m thankful that my body managed to eject most of the contaminated food before it was digested as I believe I could have died as ill as I was from the tiny morsel that had remained in my system. A month later i’m still recovering from a viral infection which I’m convinced was caused by the same bacteria getting into my lungs. Some of my colleagues were upset when seeing the state of me when returning to work so you can imagine how serious this was. During the flight I remained polite as always and maintaining a stiff upper lip suffered in silence but I found it in bad form when leaving the plane the crew didn’t even ask how I was feeling. As for their new Dreamliner Screamliner I’m not at all impressed.

Still as the plane came into land the ochre and pink sunset against the lanterns of bobbing ships on Guanabara Bay all mixing into the blue south Atlantic was quite spectacular. As the plane taxied along the runway I could make out Corcovado on the horizon and Christ the Redeemer which from that distance looked like an oversized telecoms tower bathed in spotlights. I have always suspected that the ciudade maravilhosa as the Cariocas lovingly call it could infact be Warsaw-on-Sea with it’s brutalist Sixties architecture and pulling into the ugliest airport I have ever seen – more like a large oversized power substation – seemed to confirm my suspicions. Staggering through the sweltering terminal towards a sluggish passport control was quite a shock. I had imagined everything new and especially beautiful as it is, afterall, Rio de Janeiro.


Dream view from the hotel room balcony, that’s Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer!

We decided to get the airport bus downtown which was another shocker. The bus is supposed to be a premium service but it was all a bit battered with no information or map inside so we didn’t have a clue when to get off. As the bus made it’s way past what seemed like a horrible French banlieue Loulou noticed a barefoot child run into an abandoned building while I had my eyes on a very beautiful transsexual prostitute standing near the Edifício Santo Dumont. As a kerb crawler appeared she made her way to the car showing her oversized silicone implants and pointing to the bulge protruding from her tiny bermuda shorts, obviously her advertising strategy that she was pre-op. Such an apparition for me was rather fantastical and seemed in line with my ideas of Rio as progressive where people, as gender fluid as they decide, can live how they want.

Pichaçāo, the strange cryptic grafitti reminiscent of Tifinagh script seemed to cover everything from alleyways to the upper floors of nice apartment buildings. All of this together with the constant police checkpoints and empty downtown gave everything a sinister edgy feel. The large posters for beauty products created an even awkward enviroment as all of the models were extremely aryan, even by Slavic standards and completely alien to the people I was seeing walking on the street. The only model who had darker skin tones seemed to be a television celebrity or actress. Seeing old Portuguese buildings made me feel quite emotional and in those moments I longed for Lisbon, a city where I used to live and had loved and loathed in equal measure.

Guanabara Bay

Centro and Guanabara Bay in the background

As the bus made it’s way through downtown and along Avenida Rio Branco I became obsessed with trying to figure out where we were supposed to get off the bus. Using Google Maps and a Portuguese translation app a woman disturbingly explained that we would have to walk through a dark area with trees and then through an underpass that was known as being a bit shady. We asked her to repeat this information a number of times as I was sure that she could not be serious. In a city with a dangerous reputation as Rio walking around with all of our money and electronics while clutching onto a sick bag was the last thing I wanted to hear. It had seemed so easy planning the bus transfer in a healthier state-of-mind from the comfort of my home but now as disturbing streetscapes appeared on every corner along with jetlag and confusion I was regretting not taking a taxi. The woman could see our distress and assuring us went to have a word with the bus driver and here is where Brazil gets incredible. The driver took a detour from his route and basically dropped us off right infront of our hotel! I was amazed at this gesture and realised that Brazil was going to be different and special. Where else, especially in a major city, would a scheduled airport bus make a detour to help a pair of vulnerable foreigners who could only mutter a few words of the local language?

After the drama with the predatory airline crew I realised being in a country as caring as Brazil was exactly where I wanted to be when ill. As the bus pulled away the woman who had helped us waved and smiled. I felt in that moment that I would be alright and Brazil, like a glamazon transgender mother covered in rough tattoos, would wrap me in her arms and tell me everything would be fine.

Subscribe to my blog. Next up: Following Aleijadinho’s footsteps to Mariana.